For years I’d been satisfied with the Christian history education I’d received: evil revisionists were rewriting the past, smearing the splendor of America with outright lies of oppression, male chauvinism, and racism; the Confederacy wanted simply to protect the states from an early vision of Big Brother (I never could completely agree with this claim but often felt guilty for continuing to believe the Civil War to have been about slavery); and westward expansion was our Manifest Destiny, so move over Indians!
My time at college overlapped for two years with my younger brother’s. Since I was pursuing a B.S. in English education/history education, and he a B.A. in English/history, we took many of the same history courses and had the same professors. John repeatedly warned me that we weren’t being educated so much as we were being indoctrinated. I didn’t believe him. “But they’re telling us the truth,” I’d say. I didn’t mind being indoctrinated with the truth.
After graduating, I took a job teaching junior high at a small Christian school. I taught a variety of courses that first year, including one U.S. history class; but the next year, the school grew, a history teacher was hired, and my fate was sealed: I’ve taught English ever since. I still had an interest in history (and my history training certainly helped as I taught chronological presentations of American and English literature) but didn’t read any history until my husband went to the spring 2009 Friends of the Pensacola Public Library booksale. For a dollar, he picked up a book that opened my eyes.
Written by revisionist historian James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong asserts that American history textbooks are full of hero worship—making men such as Christopher Columbus, Abraham Lincoln, and Woodrow Wilson look almost infallible when, in actuality, they were like all people: flawed, having both good and bad qualities, making both good and bad decisions. Loewen's book related neglected (suppressed may be a better word) tales of Columbus’s savagery, early British settlers’ unwarranted attacks on Indians, and racism among both Confederate and Union leaders. These stories—supported with quotations from primary sources—certainly hadn’t appeared in the Christian history textbooks I’d learned and taught from. Coming across such knowledge disturbed me. No doubt, some secular historians emphasize only the negative: that’s not the whole truth. But Christians, who believe Jesus’ words that “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32 NRSV), aren’t telling the whole truth either.
Reading Lies My Teacher Told Me gave me my first impression that something was wrong with Christian history texts,* but over the next year, I didn’t give history much thought. Then I read a book by conservative biblical scholar Wayne Grudem. Grudem demonstrated that the Bible clearly condemns slavery by quoting Ex. 21:16: “And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death” (AV). He also referenced I Tim. 1:10 where Paul includes “slave traders” in a list of other law breakers such as “murderers, fornicators, [and] sodomites” (NRSV).^ I was stunned. First, I fault myself for not being a more careful reader of Scripture, but, secondly, I fault the Christian textbooks I’d learned and taught from for not mentioning these verses in discussions on antebellum slavery and the Civil War. In nine years at Christian day schools and four in a Christian college, I’d never seen a statement indicating that slaveholders and supporters of slavery were biblically wrong. No doubt, the moral depravity of slavery is a given, but I’d always inferred that slaveholders were unenlightened since slavery was a societal norm, perfectly legal in the South, after all.
Maybe my recollections are wrong, I thought. Perhaps I’d made inferences from my textbooks that I wasn’t meant to. Not able to let the matter rest, I dug a Christian U. S. history book out of our storage closet. Feeling every bit a scholar, I looked up each reference to slavery. What I found disgusted me even more than my recollections.
A few statements in United States History: Heritage of Freedom actually seem sympathetic toward the slaveholders. Students are told that “’King Cotton’” shackled the South with the seemingly permanent institution of slavery.”** Yes, many field hands were required in order to harvest the large cotton crops, but to say that the South was “shackled” is a startling verb choice. When one is shackled, he is under the power of another and has no choice in the matter. Later, readers find more sympathy for slave owners: “A Northern factory owner could hire or lay off workers as he pleased, but a Southern planter had to provide for the welfare of his slaves and bear the expense regardless of a poor harvest or other temporary circumstances.”^^ Are we to believe that the South was a victim? Are we to do right only when it is convenient but are free to ignore biblical injunctions when our economy is at stake?
Additionally, the abolition movement gets little coverage in this textbook and most that it does get is negative. While radical abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Nat Turner are given four paragraphs, Harriet Tubman gets two sentences. The Civil War chapter is no less biased, including extended biographies of three Confederate war heroes but none on Union military leaders. (It could be argued that Grant gets his due later in the book when his presidency is discussed, but the absence of Union biographies is unbalanced at best.) In the biography of Robert E. Lee, the debatable statement that “Lee opposed slavery”*** is made. While Lee never owned slaves in his own name, he did inherit dozens of slaves upon his father-in-law’s death. Opinions vary regarding this ownership and his treatment of the slaves, and I do not pretend to know where Lee really stood on the issue; however, in the interest of the whole truth, the fact that he did inherit these slaves should be mentioned in the textbook. Lee’s biography closes with “Throughout his life, Robert E. Lee displayed the admirable characteristics of leadership, humility, compassion, and dedication to duty.”^^^ In this remark, I see the same hero worship that Loewen mentions. A man can have these very traits and still have a blind spot. We cannot neglect the fact that he fought to protect a right that was morally and biblically wrong. (Many will say he was not fighting for slavery but for states’ rights. But the particular right that ignited the conflict was slavery. In my opinion, there is no getting around the fact that fighting for the Confederacy was in actuality fighting to uphold slavery, an institution that the Bible clearly condemns.) Just as the Bible details King David’s heroics and devotion to God while also including his failures, should not a Christian history textbook present the whole of a man like Robert E. Lee?
What is my point? Certainly, I’m not trying to attack the Christian publisher (whose parent company I worked for and wish no ill upon) or to undermine parents’ faith in the quality of their children’s Christian education. Instead, I’m calling for a return to truth—the whole truth. When my daughter goes to school, above all, I want her to learn the truth. Many times it will be uplifting and inspiring, triumphant and glorious, and make her proud of her identify as an American. But other times the truth will be ugly, embarrassing, heartbreaking, and maddening. Perhaps those blemishes on America’s record will encourage her generation to make fewer mistakes, to reach out in greater Christian love to people of other races, to see where America needs improvement in her own time. I simply ask for honesty, for we have nothing to fear from truth.
* I am referring to books by the two largest Christian textbook publishers. Having been educated in high school with books from one and in college by the other and teaching eighth grade history from both, my experience is limited to only the two. I know there are several smaller Christian curriculum publishers. If we choose to homeschool Ashley and hersoon-to-be sibling, I will acquaint myself with the other companies in hopes of finding a history text I’m comfortable with.
^ Grudem’s book, Encountering the Claims of Evangelical Feminism, as evidenced by the title, is not about history or textbooks. His chapter on slavery refutes certain connections evangelical egalitarians try to make between slavery and the barring of women from particular
roles in the church.
**Michael R. Lowman, George Thompson, Kurt Grussendorf, United States History: Heritage of Freedom, 2d ed. (Pensacola: A Beka Book, 1996), 240.
^^ Ibid., 273.
*** Ibid., 291.